Feb 5 | Coming of Age Celebration | Speak, we’re listening

Sermon Title: Speak, we’re listening 
Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-21
Speaker: Joel Miller

There’s a running joke in our house that if the girls really want to get my attention they call me Joel rather than Dad.  I’ll be in the living room or kitchen or wherever, doing my thing, generally aware of the rumble and buzz around me, when all of a sudden I’m called to attention at the sound of my name.  Sometimes it turns out part of that buzz included several calls for Dad that I didn’t catch.

It’s possible I’m lost in deep thought pondering the true, the good, the beautiful, and the meaning of life.  It’s also possible I can fit the description in Simon and Garfunkel’s song The Boxer: “Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

What’s most likely, I think, is that even after 17 years of being a dad, that one syllable word still hasn’t registered in my body, in my nervous system, the same way that other one syllable word has registered, the one my parents decided to name me from birth.  From the time I could hear, from the time I could first distinguish one sound from another, that particular sound has meant something no other sound has, to me.  It means someone is addressing me.  Someone is expecting me to listen to whatever they say next, and likely give some kind of response.  Someone is calling me to attention.  And I can hardly help but to be summoned to alertness at that sound.  

So, occasionally, my daughters call me Joel to get my attention.  Which is kind of weird, but seems to work. 

Every year we choose a scripture for this Coming of Age service that helps us think about this incredibly formative time of life you Clara and Isaac and James are entering.  In our culture we call it adolescence – that time when you are no longer a child, and not yet an adult.  A time when you’re making all sorts of discoveries about yourself, the world, and where you may fit into this world.  And a time when you experience God differently.  The god-like guiding presence that your parents and parent figures have provided throughout childhood becomes too small.  Your eyes slowly shift to a wider horizon.  The ones who love and care for you and still very much there, but so are a host of others.  Your eyes also turn inward to this whole universe within yourself – thoughts, feelings, hopes, goals – sometimes chaotic, sometimes calm and clear, kind of like different weather patterns that blow in each day.

There aren’t many stories of actual young people in our scriptures.  The Bible is populated mostly by adults – sometimes misbehaving, sometimes helping each other, sometimes being courageous.  Always God is there as grace, patience, or, thundering justice, defender of the vulnerable.

What I like so much about this story of Samuel in the temple is that we have a whole chapter with a young person as the main character, at a very pivotal time in their life.  Also central to this story is Samuel being called to attention by his name.  That sound meant for just him, the name he’d had his whole life.  Samuel initially thinks it’s his mentor, Eli the priest, who is calling him, but it’s not.  We’re meeting the young Samuel just as he’s starting to get a glimpse of that wider horizon, that wider invitation calling him to attention.

When the junior high studied this together in Sunday school a few weeks ago we started with some background about how Samuel got to be in the temple with Eli in the first place.  So before we go deeper in this chapter, let’s make sure all these adults are up to speed on the backstory.

Samuel lived in a time before the Jerusalem temple was built.  Even before David captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites to make it his capital.  Significantly it will be this very Samuel, all grown up, who will anoint David as the second king of Israel.

But for now Israel was a less centralized nation, held together by tribes and clans and elders – families and extended families.  People gathered for worship in different locations.  One of these places was a temple in a town called Shiloh where Eli and his two sons were priests.  And one of these families was Hannah and her husband Elkanah who make pilgrimage to Shiloh to pray.  They have no children, which greatly distresses Hannah.  So she makes a deal with God, right there at the temple in Shiloh.  And Eli the priest knows about this.  Her prayer essentially goes like this: God, if you give me a son, I’ll give you a priest. 

Not long after this, she gets pregnant and has a son, who she names Samuel.  We can imagine Hannah repeating Samuel’s name over him as she nurses him and watches him grow.  Samuel.  Samuel.  And when he’s old enough to be done with nursing, she packs up and makes another pilgrimage to Shiloh, with little Samuel.  She speaks with Eli and reminds him who she is.  And she gives Samuel into Eli’s care.  She leaves him there at the temple.  Just like she said she would. 

We’re told that Hannah and Elkanah made that pilgrimage to Shiloh once a year, and each year Hannah would sew and bring a little robe for Samuel, a little less little each year. 

During the Sunday school Bible study I asked the class to think about what it would be like to grow up in this church building, only seeing their parents once a year.  I think parents will be glad to hear none of them jumped at the offer.  I prefer living at home too. 

But that’s kind of what the young Samuel’s life was like.  We don’t know how young he is on the night described in chapter 3, but for the sake of today, we’re going to say he’s around 12 or 13 years old, which I think is pretty realistic.  He’s on the edge of a transition.  His world is about to expand.  And that’s not necessarily an easy thing.  There’s a weight that comes with all this.   

As this story begins, a day like any other day is drawing to a close.  Eli has performed his priestly duties throughout the day and is now lying down in his room for the night.  Samuel has carried out his tasks, also now lying down in his room.

At some point, in the dark stillness of that night, Samuel hears his name called “Samuel.  Samuel.”  We can image all the other times Samuel would have heard his name called and what his response might have been.  Smiling up at his mother’s face.  Treasuring that one day a year when his father and mother greet him and fuss over how much he’s grown as they present the new robe.  Reponding to the instructions of Eli.

This is Samuel’s frame of reference for hearing his name.  He can’t yet imagine something outside of those key adults in his life who might want his attention. 

Three times Samuel hears his name called out, and each time he gets up and goes to Eli, “Here I am, for you called me.”  Three times Eli says It wasn’t me.  Go lie back down. 

The final time, perhaps remembering back to an experience of his own youth, Eli tells Samuel to go lie back down, and if he hears his name called again, to say: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”  Eli encourages Samuel to be still and simply listen.

And the voice comes again, Samuel.  Samuel. 

Whether or not an audio recorder, had there been such a thing at that time, would have captured any sound of this, is not the point of the story.  The voice of God isn’t always as clear as Clara T speaking into a microphone. What’s important to take from this story is that Samuel was called to a new kind of attention.  An attention he hadn’t yet experienced.  An awareness, an openness.  The dark stillness of that room, the dark stillness of his mind and heart, the dark stillness of the world around him, was alive with Spirit.  Alive with the Source of all life.  Alive with God.  And not in a general kind of way.  It was alive in a very personal kind of way.  So personal it was calling him by name.  As if it wanted his full attention.  As if it was asking something of him.  As if it expected a response. 

Samuel hears this, feels this, knows this.  And says those words his teacher had taught him: “Speak.  Your servant is listening.”  Samuel is listening. 

And this is sometimes where the story ends, or at least where we stop paying attention.  I’m guessing those of you who are familiar with this story and familiar up to this point, then the details start to get a little fuzzy. 

Samuel hears his name called, and rather than it being Eli, it’s the voice of God. Yes, and then what?  What does Samuel hear when he listens? 

The reason we may be tempted to stop the story at this point, or may have forgotten to remember what happens next, is that what Samuel hears is hard.  It’s not the kind of bright and amazing experience we might think of if we imagine hearing the voice of God.  It’s as if Samuel holds out his hands, ready to receive a special gift, and God hands him a big heavy rock and says Here, hold this for a while. 

The heavy rock God hands him has to with Eli and his family.  Eli’s sons had long been misusing their power as priests, taking the meat and grains people brought in for sacrifices and filling up their bellies instead of performing their sacred rituals.  “Scoundrels” is what the text calls them.  And Eli, Samuel’s teacher and mentor, apparently hadn’t been doing anything to stop them.  Eli’s family can’t continue as priests.

This is what Samuel hears after following the guidance of Eli to listen.  It’s difficult and maybe a little earth shattering for Samuel.  It’s a hard truth to hold.  But it is now his to carry. 

Morning comes, Eli comes in, and asks him what the message was, and Samuel, to his credit, tells him everything.  The younger generation suddenly the teacher of the older generation.  The young Samuel passing along the words of God to the priest Eli.

I wish we could say that if you pay close enough attention, if you listen well and open your hands to receive whatever gifts the world has for you, that you’ll always hear something wonderful, that you’ll always receive something to treasure.  That’s not how this story goes and that’s not how our stories go.  At least not all the time. 

Samuel – Hannah’s child, Eli’s student, God’s servant – will go on to become an important leader for his people.  He is wise.  He is caring.  It’s not the life of a super hero.  It’s the life of a human being.  It’s the life Jesus called his followers to accept when he called them by name: Peter, Martha. Zachheaus. Mary.

This voice, this call, this invitation, continues to extend to each one of us, including you Isaac Isaac, Clara Clara, James James. 

And it starts simply by listening.  And in listening, the world expands.  God becomes so much larger than we can imagine.  And more personal than we can imagine.  Calling us to attention.  Calling us to trust the small voice within ourselves.  Calling us to be the grace and patience and truth tellers this world needs.  Even entrusting us with hard and sometimes heavy things that are ours to carry for a while, with the help of others. 

We’re so glad the three of you are part of this community of faith and we celebrate with you and your families the beloved children of God you already are.